By Michael Easter
Five ways to use rucking to prep for a perfect fall hike or backpacking trip.
October is prime hiking season. The trails aren’t muddy like they can be in spring. They aren’t overly hot and crowded and buggy like they can be in summer. They’re solid, full of color, and a good place to find some silence and solitude. Which is to say, you should be out hiking this fall.
But here’s the thing: Most people haphazardly strut out into the wilderness with zero preparation. It’s new and uncomfortable. They have no fun then declare that they hate nature and everything in it. A little preparation goes a long way to being able to hike a farther and faster all while enjoying your time. Rucking is the path to doing just that. Follow these five tips to step up your hiking and backpacking game.
1. Get on Rough Ground
Today it’s entirely possible to, for entire years of life, never step off level and manicured ground. We all mostly walk on hardwood floors, carpets, cement, asphalt, and landscaped ground.
Hiking gets you off all that, and this new world underfoot can feel awkward at first. The ability to efficiently cover rough ground is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. If our brains and bodies don’t need the ability to navigate rougher ground, they ditch it.
This means that hiking on a trail might make you feel and walk like a toddler. The steeper grades, and rockier, rougher, and looser ground take some getting used to. One Alaskan wilderness guide I spoke to explained that his clients who come from the city, even if they’ve trained hard in the gym, are much slower on the trail the first few days in the wilderness because they need time to adapt to the rougher ground.
If you’re planning a big fall hike, try doing a few short walks on rough and loose ground, even if it’s rucking across some undulating grass or an undeveloped rocky lot. This helps your body adapt—and burn more calories per step. Biomechanists at the University of Michigan discovered that the increased challenge of walking or running on rough, uneven ground forces people to burn 28 percent more energy per step compared to paved ground.
2. Prep Your Shoulders
If you haven’t worn a pack in a while, your shoulders may not be entirely ready for the extra weight. They’ll likely start to ache. So long as your pack is a reasonable weight, not over 50 pounds, this isn’t a sign of danger. But it is annoying. It can lead you to obsess about your achy shoulders rather than be present in the beauty of nature around you.
Prep your shoulders by finding time where you can wear a weighted ruck around your home or neighborhood. The goal is to accumulate time under the weight. Wear a weighted ruck as you clean the house, or walk the dogs, or stand on the sidelines of your kid’s soccer game. If you have a standing desk, wear your ruck for long periods of work.
The goal is to wear it until your shoulders start to ache, then take it off. Repeat later in the day or the next day. It’ll start to take longer and longer for your shoulders to ache.
This advice isn’t just for newbies and those hiking after a long time off. Even if you regularly do an hour-long ruck a few times a week, your shoulders may not be ready for a day-long hike.
3. Strengthen Your Stems
You’ll face some ups and downs during your hike. And we don’t mean just, like, emotional swings where you start the hike happy and end it exhausted. We mean legit elevation change.
If you’re hiking a mountain out-and-back, for example, it’ll probably be all uphill one way and all downhill the other. Just like your shoulders may not be used to the weight, your legs may not be used to that sort of elevation change. Not just the climbs; even hiking downhill takes a solid level of eccentric strength, or ability to lower yourself.
Here's a simple way to get ready for your hike that also doubles as a great workout you can (and should!) do anytime of the year. Find an exercise box, step, or even a sturdy chair or bench. It can be as low as 6 inches or as high as 24 inches. Now set a timer for anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes. Step up onto it using your left leg. Now lower yourself in a controlled fashion. Repeat on your right leg. Switch back and forth throughout until the timer goes off. That’s it. That’s the entire workout. If it seems weird to have a workout that’s just one exercise, consider that running and cycling are just one exercise too.
You can wear a weighted ruck if you want, but you don’t have to. My favorite is to wear a ruck that’s anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of my bodyweight. For me, that’s roughly 20 to 35 pounds.
Even if you don’t face an Everest-like hill on your hike, the step-ups will still pay off. A study of nearly 2 million healthy people showed that those with the strongest legs were 14 percent less likely to die.
By the way, if you’re doing all these step-ups, you might as well sign up for CHAD 1000X. It’s 1000 step-ups done anyway you want (with some suggested guidelines), all to bring awareness to the epidemic of suicide, especially among veterans.
If you’re backpacking, you want your pack to be light. Rucking, on the other hand, takes the opposite view. We want our packs to be heavy for the sake of it. We’re literally carrying around plates of iron designed and packed for the sole purpose of sucking under the pull of gravity. It’s actually quite funny in the grand scheme of time and space—humans evolved to avoid effort because that used to keep us alive when the world was inherently challenging and food was scarce. We now must do some funny things to stay healthy.
As you train for a hike, it can be beneficial to occasionally ruck with far more than what your hiking pack will weigh. So let’s say you’re doing a three-day backpacking trip and you know your pack will weigh about 30 to 35 pounds (that’s usually a sweet spot). You may want to try the occasional ruck with more than that. Say, 50 pounds. This pushes your strength above and beyond what you’ll need outdoors, giving you a bigger engine than you’ll need.
5. Dial in Your Gear
You can train like Rocky. You can learn more wilderness knowledge as Pocahontas. But if your pack is far too heavy and uncomfortable, your time outdoors is going to be less fun than it could be.
Most people who are new to hiking or backpacking carry too much stuff. Enough food to feed a family of four. A tent big enough to be used for a circus. An emergency kit varied enough to treat all the wounded at Utah Beach. This just weighs you down and makes your hiking trip no fun. Around mile one, you might find yourself hurling a bunch of food out into the wilderness, trying to lighten your load.
Nature is inherently uncomfortable. You don’t need to push it to an extreme, but you should embrace that discomfort. A big benefit of going deep into the outdoors is to remove yourself from our modern conveniences. By going without, we return home more grateful for just how amazing the basic conveniences we now take for granted are. For example: When’s the last time you really appreciated a hot shower? Trust me, you will after enough time in the backcountry.
It’s ok to be a little hungry out there. To not be a perfect 72 degrees the entire time. To feel some hunger and boredom. All you really need to not die on a fall backpacking trip is a reliable shelter, solid rain gear, an insulating mid layer, and a bit of food and a reliable way to get water. Also an emergency blanket and reliable communications device (cell phone if you know you’ll get service, Garmin InReach if you won’t). For a day hike, you can ditch the shelter.
To make sure you don’t overpack, try loading everything you’re planning to backpack with into your pack. Then ruck around your neighborhood with it. If you’re struggling on pavement, you may want to start paring down.
Michael Easter is an author, professor, and adventurer. His work has appeared in over 60 countries and can also be found in Men’s Journal, New York, Vice, Scientific American, Esquire, and others. He lives in Las Vegas on the edge of the desert with his wife and two dogs. If you want to read more, subscribe to his newsletter and read his book, The Comfort Crisis.